When anti-government protesters in the Arab world streamed video of violent police and military actions to the internet, the whole free world praised the citizens’ courage in daring to share what was happening. Americans cheered the loudest, and we were outraged when Egyptian Secret Police confiscated dissidents' cell phones. After all, we invented free speech and the rights of private citizens, didn’t we? At least we act as if we did. And we want everybody to have the same freedoms we enjoy.
But what happens when ordinary U.S. citizens, supposedly protected by the First Amendment, hold up their cell phones to record police actions on their own streets? Often the police, without benefit of warrants or civility, confiscate the citizens’ private property – their cell phones – on the spot. Sometimes they try to make people believe it’s illegal to take pictures or video of law enforcement officers doing their jobs. This sort of action by police is in the news so often now that it might make you wonder if the police are familiar with the Constitution.
In Atlanta, unlawful police seizure of a cell phone recently cost the city $40,000 in a settlement, and the officers involved are being re-educated about the rights of citizens.
Miami Beach police are embroiled in controversy over a similar incident.
And so on and so on. It’s happening all over the country.
In Washington, DC, a couple of weeks ago, a crowd gathered to watch city police arrest a suspect who injured two officers before he was subdued and placed in a police van. No one has accused the police of misconduct in regard to the suspect. But a bystander who caught the incident on video via her cell phone says officers confiscated her phone at the scene. Witnesses say she was told that she was illegally filming a crime scene. When she got her phone back five days later, the video had been erased.
The assistant chief of police, who apparently knows the woman wasn’t breaking the law, said afterward that the officers actually seized the woman’s property -- without a warrant, a subpoena, or a politely worded request -- because her video might have “evidentiary value.” She said the police have a right to do that. The ACLU begs to differ, and a spokesman for the organization said the police were the ones who acted improperly. As long as a citizen is not hampering the police in the performance of their duties or physically intruding on an active crime scene, holding up a cell phone and taking pictures or video is not illegal, and due process is required if the phone is believed to contain evidence.
With growing numbers of people carrying cell phones with video capacity, we can expect to see more videos posted online of police and other public servants at work. We’re used to The Powers That Be watching us all the time. Now we can watch them, and share what we see with the whole world if we want to. You can hook a Looxcie camera over your ear, capture everything that happens in front of you, and send it to Facebook on the spot. You can use Bambuser, the same Swedish service that Arab dissidents used to stream live video to the world from their cell phones. You can get your video out there before the authorities have a chance to confiscate your device.
And I say it’s a good thing that this capability exists. It was good for citizens of the Arab world who crave freedom, and it’s good for those of us who supposedly already live in freedom.
Most of the time, I respect the police enormously. I certainly appreciate the job they do for the public, and I know it’s difficult, stressful, and sometimes dangerous work. But does that give the police the right to infringe on the rights of citizens when those citizens are not breaking the law?
Are we going to cheer when Egyptians film their police in action, but condemn U.S. citizens for doing the same thing?